Reflections of the International Volunteers- workcamp July 2016

Greta Giovani - Italy
You Will Always Feel at Home

  I was looking for a non-touristic journey in which I could truly experience life in a new country, rather than just visiting museums, ruins or buildings. I found it with the Zajel Youth Exchange, where I was able to compare what I had heard about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the media with people's personal narrations; their opinions; their suffering; and their personal way of dealing with the conflict in every-day life.

  I spent two weeks at An-Najah National University in Nablus, talking with students and taking part in a cultural exchange. Zajel organised trips all around Palestine including Bethlehem, Ramallah, Qalqilya, Rawabi, Hebron, and many other villages. I appreciated the existence of several learning levels: cultural, political, historical, social and human. We were also shown traditional dresses and dances, we tasted Arabic coffee and food, and we discussed economic and political problems. For example, the lack of human rights, the troubles in water management, and the freedom of movement.

  Most of the time I lived in cheerful harmony, making new friends and overcoming stereotypes and cultural differences. I also had to face harsh situations such as passing through checkpoints and observing the difficult lives people have in the refugee camps. One of the most significant experiences was the apartheid wall, which is a symbol of control, repression, and division. Despite this, many artists try to make the wall talk through the universal language of street art.

  The volunteers in Zajel and the people of Palestine always say “welcome home”: you will travel in the Middle East, in a conflict zone, with people in an incessant struggle…but you will always feel at home.

Alice - Italy
My First Stay in Palestine

  As human beings, all of us need to share something with other humans and also to be comprehended by someone. These two weeks in Palestine have been a great opportunity to create connections with people and with this territory. Spending so much time with local and international volunteers created a sense of community – one which united all the possible differences between us. This was due in part to the perception of the Palestinian people’s condition and the empathy that goes with it. Also, this was due to the characteristics of the local culture: taking food as a small example, we basically shared the meal from the same plate. This was very different to the type of eating which I was used to…just watching my own plate.

  We travelled with the university to visit the West Bank far and wide. We dealt with very different and difficult situations, and this personally allowed me to make great strides in understanding a conflict as complex as this.

  What Zajel camp aspires to do, in fact, is to make people "breathe" the Palestinian way of being in all its shades. And they succeed, thanks to the organisation and to An-Najah university volunteers. We visited some significant places like the Balata refugee camp inside Nablus, the city of Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah, and the district of Qalqilia. We also came in contact with the strong cultural traditions of the area such as the traditional dances.

  By living here, I felt at home. At the end of these two weeks I can only say this: I wish I could stay more! I think this kind of travel truly changes and inspires you. Because of this and of all the adventures we experienced, I will not forget my (first) stay in Palestine.

Elias Jafer - France/Algeria
Experiencing Palestine

  Before arriving in the Holy Land, I didn’t know what to expect, and I had no idea what was going to happen. I was a little bit worried, but one thing is certain, I never thought that ‘Light a Candle’ would be the most wonderful human experience of my life. Despite all the good feedback that I already had about the Palestinian people, I never imagined that I would meet the most honorable, courageous, brave and generous of all the people I have known until now.

  During these two weeks, we saw the hard reality of Palestinian daily life, the Israeli military occupation, the settlements, the checkpoints, the presence of armed settlers, and the pervasive humiliation that the Palestinian people have to face. Every day was a new life lesson, and a new experience. It was sobering, and has completely changed our vision of the conflict. Every single day, without exception, was rich in emotion – feelings that have completely changed the way we see things, and which have greatly strengthened and opened our minds. The moments that particularly effected me were the trips to Qalqilya and Hebron. Qalqilya, where our Palestinian friends had to take a different line to ours, reminded us that apartheid still exists today. In Hebron, a Palestinian city known for being at the centre of the occupation, we saw misery and children who suffer. We saw the settlements within the city walls, and the increasingly violent and arrogant settlers.

  Without the Zajel Youth Exchange, I would never have met these fantastic Palestinian people. The camp was supported by a wonderful team of locals, They all did an outstanding job during our stay, and proved to us once again how honourable the Palestinian people are.

  The workshops were also a great feature of this trip. Giving lectures to Palestinian students, supervised by a responsible class helper (for translation, and the smooth running of course), enabled us to exchange our knowledge in a particular field whilst also gaining an immense amount of life lessons from the Palestinian students. In this way, we really got to know their culture, and became totally immersed in Palestinian life.

  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the oldest conflicts in the world, subject to much controversy and many debates. The reality is very far from what we are shown on news channels. For anyone interested in visiting Palestine and taking part in Zajel, there is no doubt that you will have all your questions answered. You will see the reality of the conflict. And most importantly, you will completely fall in love with one of the greatest and most valiant peoples in the whole world.

Doriane More - France
Three Years of Feelings in Three Weeks

  My dear readers, how can I share with you the two most intense weeks of my life? I applied to this program in April with the desire to truly discover Palestine, and to see beyond what the French media delivers to its people. When Zajel posted my name on the Zajel Facebook group, I started to receive a lot of message from local students saying ‘welcome’. I arrived a week before the beginning of the camp.

  I realised later that it was during the end of Ramadan and ‘Eid. This was a perfect coincidence! I was invited to the homes of three different families in three different cities. What a privilege! I had the chance to discover Palestine as I could never have expected. I ate the Iftar meal every night with the families, and I moved from house to house to drink coffee and tea, and to eat a lot of delicious sweets. This week was unforgettable! In coming to Palestine I knew that I would visit the most famous cities in the country, but I never expected to become so close to the population. All the families treated me like a princess, as I received gifts and an abundance of kindness.

  After my first week in Palestine, the international volunteers taking part in the ‘Light a Candle’ summer camp started to arrive. These two weeks seemed to last both one hour and one year. Indeed, the camp was extremely emotional and intense. But at the same time, when the end came we didn’t want to accept that the camp was over. I would like to share with you my feelings about the people, the places we’ve been to, and the country. As I said above, the people are admirable. The local volunteers were always taking care of us – ensuring that we had everything we needed or wanted. They shared with us their personal stories and their experiences of the Palestine-Israeli conflict, and they spent their free time with us.

  A crucial element of our incredible experience was teaching classes to the local students. It was more than a touristic camp, as it allowed us to gain some theoretical knowledge about the conflict. To teach added a special human feeling to this camp, and made me feel like I was taking part in a real exchange. I was not simply receiving information from the Palestinian population, as I was also giving something back to the community.

  Zajel showed us a lot of places and cities in the country. I still don’t know how to thank Zajel for these experiences. We visited some places that I never could have even considered travelling to if I had been alone. For instance, we went to Hebron. Hebron is famous because of its instability and its recurring violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinians.

  This day was probably the more intense of the camp. The city is overloaded with check points and Israeli soldiers. Even access to the mosque in Hebron is controlled by the Israeli forces. Zajel showed us how to get into the settlement established inside the city walls. I can assure you that this experience was one of the hardest of my entire life. The streets were empty of people and shops (all of them were closed sixteen years ago), As you can see, Zajel worked very hard to show us many different aspects of Palestinian life. Every day the activities were different to the previous days. We had the chance to visit a refugee camp, a settlement, destroyed houses, the UNICEF office, Hebron, Bethlehem, a wonderful valley close to Jordan and many other places. I believe that all of these activities were essential.

  In Nablus I met Sedena, an international volunteer who attended the camp last year, and returned to Palestine for ‘Light a Candle’. She said that her experiences with Zajel radically changed her life. Now I understand what she meant when she told us this upon her arrival. I am still wondering how it is possible to be so kind and peaceful whilst living under oppression, aggression and humiliation every day.

  To conclude, this camp gave me substantial knowledge about the conflict. But most importantly, Zajel also taught me a human lesson. I’m sure that I will miss the solidarity, the communication, and the kindness between the local volunteers and the internationals when I fly back to Europe. I hope that I will have the strength to bring back to France the voices of the Palestinian people, and to spread awareness of the truths and realities which I had the chance to see in their land.

Norman Church - United Kingdom
Voyage of Discovery: New Eyes

  There's only one reason to attend a project like Zajel and that is to create memories. And neither I nor my international colleagues are short of momentous moments, both happy and poignant. There's an old Chinese proverb that says the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and that the next best time is now. And here we are today, planting seeds for development and work that will last a generation. The Zajel project started many years ago with modest expectation and from tiny acorns grow mighty oak trees.

  The project has brought together volunteers from many countries and cultures. We share rooms together, eat together and socialize together. There is a lot of mutual respect and not surprisingly, togetherness. For me these combined relationships act as the glue of coherence. Speaking on behalf of the group, we have all found our classes both interesting and challenging. There are of course, cultural norms around what is and is not acceptable and I find that if nobody is dancing, perhaps it's time to change the music. Listening to the students was a fundamental aspect of the program. Establishing their needs and not making assumptions on my part. It was a challenge with 30 students most days working in a 90 minute time frame and it mostly worked well.

  The local volunteers were outstanding in their diligence and dedication both in the classroom and during our visits to many places of interest in Palestine. Their guidance and language skills in both Arabic and English facilitated a seamless transition from the impossible to the sublime. Their determination, patience and calm manner always made us feel welcome, protected and valued and I'm sure our friendships will last the pleasures of time. The people - as volunteers, it's tough to know what to expect. I thought it would be hard and yes we have seen great hardship: Bombed and burnt out houses; Land confiscated illegally; People deprived of water, food and sanitation. Their human rights violated on a daily basis. The Israeli stranglehold and subjugation endures. Perhaps what breaks our hearts serves to open our hearts. And yet life goes on; the people smile, they are welcoming, kind and generous. These attributes linger in all of our hearts and for me it was a great reminder to give more and expect nothing in return, and to live a life of honor, respect and gratitude.

  Beyond this project we must continue because the work is never done. There is always more to do. Sometimes the work might seem small or insignificant. But it is not. Everything contributes to the big picture. A bee goes about its daily work, slowly, diligently and willingly. It pollinates flowers, plants and crops. Without the work of the humble bee there would be no food on our tables. It's estimated that bees harvest crops to the value of $170 billion per year. Do you think the bee understands its impact on human life and on our ecosystem? So we must never underestimate our work and we should never underestimate the positive impact we can have on others.

  There are so many opportunities to fulfil our lives and help people see the simplicity and pure beauty of a life of gratitude. This trip has formulated a different view on the Palestinian world. It serves to help me focus on my sense of purpose while enjoying every step along the path. The French essayist Marcel Proust once said, 'the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.'

Sedena Salce - United States/Bosnia
My Return: Lessons and Life after Palestine

  My reflection will be a little bit different than the rest. Last year after my first visit to Palestine, I put in words, as best I can, the life changing experience that is Zajel. I convey the initial fears prior to arrival, the first heartwarming hospitable encounters, the absolutely loving communities you meet, amazing trips to Bethlehem & Hebron (among others), and the somber goodbye that pulls you apart from the place you fall in love with so dearly. What I wish to share with my reflection is life after Zajel, the life that no longer is the same.

  Many people ask me why. Why do I return? Why do I struggle to raise awareness? Why do I put my career or my future at risk, for what is perceived as the "hopeless" Palestinian cause. Well, my answer is quite simple actually. Beautifully summed up in my favorite saying: "to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, But to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others". I am one person, a single being. I am aware I cannot liberate Palestine, I cannot lift the siege on Gaza, and I cannot establish statehood. But what I can do is raise awareness, tell friends and family stories of these beautiful people called Palestinians, I can demonstrate in protests, I can lobby in congress, and I can stand in solidarity. Even if nothing comes from my efforts, it is enough for me to just return and see my Palestinian family smile. I'll always come back, even if it's just to see them smile. Their smiles are sincere and full of grace.

  Palestine is not hopeless, it is not futile, and it is not despairing. Palestine is so much more than occupation. It is a rich culture, with a comforting heritage. It is locals inviting you for coffee and tea just because they're happy to see you. It is a cuisine that never leaves you unsatisfied. It is antiquated buildings and towns. It is breathtaking sunsets, ones I promise you haven't seen anywhere in the world. Palestine is holy, it is dabke, it is keffiyeh, it is knafeh, and it is the heart of resistance. If there's anything that I've learned during my stays in's that being Palestinian is not just about being born in this homeland, but rather having the homeland be born in side our hearts. As for my dear friends here, there's no need to ask me whether or not I will return again. I can one live life not returning home?

Rebecca Carpenter - United Kingdom
Challenging Stereotypes and Changing Perspectives

  Before my arrival in Palestine, I was very nervous about what I would see and experience. My friends and family were apprehensive too, and some were unsure as to why I wanted to travel to a ‘dangerous’ and militarised area. These feelings of uncertainty can largely be attributed to the media’s interpretation of Palestine, and the completely negative picture media outlets paint of life here. Of course, life under Israeli occupation is a struggle for the elderly and the young alike – and Zajel has opened my eyes to the hardships and complications endured by ordinary people on a daily basis. However, what the global media misses is the hospitality; the love; the hope; and the prospects for change that exist within Palestinian society. Life in Palestine is so much more than the conflict that many of us hear about, and this is something that the Zajel Youth Exchange aims to promote to its guests.

  The project really lived up to its name – it truly is a cultural exchange. I had the pleasure of meeting and living with internationals from France, Italy, Spain, Bosnia, Canada, the UK, and the US. We shared every meal together for two weeks, and we became incredibly close friends during the camp. As a group, our main reason for taking part in Zajel was to learn about and to experience Palestinian culture – and this aim was certainly fulfilled. The programme was unique every day, with a new village to be visited and a new food to be tried. The Palestinian students that volunteered their time to help us and accommodate us were so kind and caring, and I learnt so much from them about Palestine. Their assistance and support made the two weeks incredibly special and rewarding. It was also eye-opening to hear their personal stories of life under Israeli occupation. I will always remember those narratives, as they have really touched my heart. I’m so astonished and shocked at how resilient these young people are. In spite of everything that they face and endure – checkpoints, aggression, discrimination, and home demolition – they are still eager to thrive in their studies or in their employment. Their outlook on life and their positivity is truly inspirational.

  The two weeks spent in Palestine with Zajel have truly changed my perspective on international politics and on the situation here in the West Bank. As a Politics and IR student, this new way of thinking will be truly beneficial to me in my studies and in any future career. So many people accept half-truths about the situation here and don’t question the negativity produced by the media, and before Zajel I was probably one of them. So I am overwhelmingly thankful to Zajel for altering my mind-set. In relation to this, the most eye-opening aspect of the summer camp was our visit to Rawabi city near Ramallah. Rawabi is a newly constructed city, built and designed almost exclusively by Palestinians. Eventually it will house up to 40,000 Palestinians in an innovative and beautiful environment. The Palestinian flags waving high above Rawabi filled my heart with hope and happiness. Rawabi is an example of Palestine at its best – flourishing peacefully and gracefully in spite of massive challenges imposed by the Israeli occupation.

  I will never ever forget my time in Palestine, and I’m eager to return in the future. The memories that were made here are engraved in my heart and soul, and the stories of resilience will continue to inspire me each and every day. It’s hard to find a way to thank Zajel for this opportunity, but I hope that my continued solidarity with Palestine will be enough. There is so much work to do in the international community to raise awareness about Palestine and its hopes and dreams – and if I can be a small part of that movement, then I will be happy.

Josh Dawkins - United States
Welcome Home

  Welcome Home. It is the phrase that first greeted me when I applied for the Zajel ‘Light a Candle’ program hosted by An-Najah National University. After reading about the program, I realized that I had limited knowledge of the Palestinian situation on the ground, and saw this as a great learning opportunity to grow my knowledge base. I have only one phrase to say if you are considering this program: you must apply. Singlehandedly, it is one of the most emotional, meaningful, impactful study abroad projects I have participated in.

  First we begin with the people. Immediately, I was greeted with smiles, chants of “where are you from?” and “welcome home.” The people of Palestine were gracious and caring from the start, thanking us for attending and particularly proud that we came to learn about their country, history, and customs. Place after place, we were bombarded with offers of coffee, dinner invitations, offers to accompany us anywhere, and a general need to be with us at all times. The Palestinian people are a proud people, striking the chord of common humanity at every moment.

  The landscape was breathtaking, with gorgeous mountains, constant sun, and clean streets and alleys. The historical landmarks were plentiful and ageless, giving a sense that Palestine has a proud heritage. The University has a family-feel about it, with students saying “salaam” from across the open campus, sensing that foreigners had made a long journey to see their country. The food was amazing, served family style as yet another example of how community is important to the Palestinians.

  The program is amazingly designed to gain cultural awareness by building strong relationships with local Palestinians. We taught a course to a group of An-Najah students with limited English language proficiency. I was in charge of teaching 55 current graduates skills that would be necessary for them to secure jobs in the competitive global job market. We focused on making a first impression, analyzed and presented on the 12 most commonly asked interview questions, re-wrote resumes, and worked on how to successfully ask for a letter of recommendation. The class was a mix of group-work and pair-work, allowing the students the opportunity to present in front of one another, thus building presentation skills and confidence.

  Needless to say, by the time the program had concluded, I felt bonded to my students, bonded to the university volunteers who helped me translate and accompanied me everywhere, and bonded to all of the locals who seemed so appreciative for our willingness to learn about Palestine.